I know that the meaning of words changes all the time and that “silly” once signified “holy”; and that this slow corruption adds to the richness of the language. But laziness with vocabulary leads to precise and valuable words being made redundant. Take the invaluably precise “effete” which is now almost universally degraded to a synonym for “effeminate” (merely on account of the weasel coincidence of letters), or even “epicene”. The Times last week referred to a Cabinet minister’s manner seeming “effete, borderline camp” . I think we all know what The Thunderer was implying; but “effete” by derivation actually means drained, tired, worn out as though by childbirth (from the Latin “ex fetus”). A journalist once described me as being “marvellously effete” and I was entranced that she had apparently seen me in a state of fascinating exhaustion like the prostrate Melanie fleeing Atlanta in Rhett’s wagon, or King Arthur floating moribund in the barge to Avalon. If this indeed was my visitor’s intended meaning…
Anyway I was in a highly effete state as January changed to February and I thought gloomily of Nicholas I’s threat to British troops in the Crimea “Messieurs janvier + fevrier sont mes meilleurs generaux!” (The months that kill). My mood was lifted by two things. The first was that lucky man’s dog (“Madge”) finding the lump of ambergris on the beach at Morecambe. As I write, its estimated value continues to rise – from 45 to 50 to 100 thousand pounds. A dog returns to its vomit – or in this case the waste matter and stoppages of a sperm whale – and a fortune of fairy gold is made from filth; “gaudy tulips raised from dung”; the sweet bees’ nest and honeycomb found in the corpse of the lion. No wonder that over the centuries ambergris (like oud) has exerted such a mystical power over the imagination: “out of the strong came forth sweetness”; out of rot comes resurrection and redolence. This week’s discovery is the fable of dross into gold come to literal life on a beach that has the same sort of banal music-hall associations as Skegness or Blackpool. No wonder the world’s Press was so fascinated and every perfumer’s phone rang off the hook. It reminded me of Quentin Crisp’s line,”No sooner is the breath out of Miss Dietrich’s body than my phone starts ringing…”. By the way, do you remember that similar furore when they found one of Marlene’s earrings during the helter-skelter repairs at Blackpool some years ago?
So much for ambergris. And then one morning, quite suddenly, the first crop of snowdrops flowered in the garden, looking as though a hand had rifled Queen Elizabeth’s jewel case and scattered her pearls across the black soil and the last of the decayed autumn leaves. Snowdrops fainting like Garbo and then, revived by an hour of the first warm sun of 2013, exuding their delicate scent of nectar and revival; tough little characters actually – within twenty-four hours they were subjected to ice and howling winds but they have no intention of surrender. And what’s more, last summer’s ghastly rains have proved a blessing in the end: the sodden ground has encouraged all the flower bulbs to spread and proliferate across the beds.
As always, the new year has started to come to life after a comatose first few weeks. The sense of smell has been sharpened by the olfactory sorbet of midwinter as the imagination is revived by dormant hibernation. Maybe time to start looking for a new scent? Make mine ambergris, an efficacious effluvial emanation that’s far from effete.
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